Surprisingly Sincere: A 'Gifted' Film Review
by Will Lindus
There’s this uncomfortably snobby and selfish thing that happens when an independent film director is scooped up by a big studio for a blockbuster action film on the heels of releasing a smaller budget, critically acclaimed hit. For fans of the indie film, a period of mourning commences as we grieve the creativity of a filmmaker devoured whole by Big Hollywood. I’m guilty of this. When Marc Webb, mastermind behind the genre defying ‘500 Days of Summer’ was tapped for the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ franchise, I joined the lamentations of fellow film nerds. When those films turned out to be sub-par compared even to my expectations, I began the process of mentally writing off Webb as dissipating lightning in a cracked bottle.
Along came ‘Gifted,’ a film with a premise which should have done absolutely nothing for me, and yet somehow I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. While the film lacks the presence of ‘500 Days of Summer’ and is far from perfect, it has me optimistic that Webb is back to making the type of films he excels at: small, soulful films that explore the complexity of human relationships.
‘Gifted’ tells the story of a precocious, charming child math prodigy named Mary (McKenna Grace) who is being raised by her uncle, an aimless man named Frank (Chris Evans). Chris and Mary share a special relationship: Chris seeks for Mary’s genius to not alienate her from other kids her age. He pushes against multiple offers from prestigious boarding schools and ivy league colleges, fearful that the label of ‘special’ will stunt her emotional growth and maturation. For the most part, Mary sees Frank for the steadfast caregiver that he is. But when Frank’s mother (and Mary’s grandmother) comes to town to take Mary away to focus her attention on an insolvable mathematical equation, the relationship between uncle and niece is strained by outside pressures and awkward family court proceedings.
This type of film has a tendency to be schmaltzy and disposable. To his credit, Webb directs the film head-on into the more melodramatic elements, and more to his credit, it kind of works. ‘Gifted’ is absolutely dripping in heart, from silhouetted scenes as characters are bonding in gorgeous fields to emotional courtroom outbursts to swelling emotional music meant to tug on the heartstrings. In a lesser film, these would come across as manipulative but here, they help underscore the mismatched connection between Frank and Mary.
Chris Evans is golden in the lead role as Frank. He plays the character with an understated simplicity that highlights his humility while masking his intelligence. As the story unfolds and we learn more about Frank and his motivations, these choices solidify. This role doesn’t really demand much nuance; these types of films are designed for flashy performances and ‘big’ emotion. That Evans is allowed to find complexity within the role is a welcome departure from expectation. The other half of the alchemy of this film is McKenna Grace, who has the unfortunate chore of being a child actress playing a child prodigy, a duty which can all too easily result in an obnoxious character. While her performance sometimes borders on this extreme, it is mostly kept in check in service of the chemistry between her and Chris Evans.
Bottom Line: As mentioned before, this isn’t a perfect film. The trajectory of the plot is pretty easy to identify fairly early in the film, leaving for an anticlimactic resolution. At times, Mary’s grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) has inscrutable motivations, making some of her actions come across as more mean-spirited than is probably intended. Still, these shortcomings do little to dampen the emotional resonance of this incredibly heartfelt, tender, and sweet tale of family sticking together to overcome adversity.
3.5 out of 5 Bear Paws